PROCESS POST: Observation Journals, Bus Stops, Daring to Fly High #TDed

“Taking issues and situations and problems and going to root components; understanding how the problem evolved – looking at it from a systemic perspective and not accepting things at face value.

It also means being curious about why things are the way they are and being able to think about why something is important.”

Annmarie Neal’s definition of “critical thinking,” as reported in Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, p. 16. Neal is VP Talent Management at Cisco Systems.

Training to Be an Innovator

In working to be a student of innovation, I have come to believe that I must practice the five skills of disruptive innovators, as defined by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen in The Innovator’s DNA: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking, and associating. (Of course, these traits mirror the phases and stages typically described in “design thinking,” too.) For me, this practice takes several different forms. As just one example, keeping an observation journal has proven to be a transformative exercise that continues to develop fascinating habits-of-mind muscle. Just like a person purposefully training in running or cycling develops fitness and musculature, by purposefully training in observation and questioning, as well as in the other skills, I know I am developing fitness and musculature as an innovator and design thinker.

Such observation journaling and innovation training, I believe, exist as critical foundations and pillaring for faculties and students who are serious about developing the Seven Survival Skills that Wagner details in The Global Achievement Gap:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

An Example from the Field

Thanks to my training, I walk through my surroundings and communities differently now. My senses are sharper and I am more intentional about my awareness.

Not long ago, on one of my morning walks with Lucy (my pointer-hound mix), I was stopped in my tracks by these signs:

2013-06-29 07.19.58

Along this railroad-tie wall, there are several of these signs. The wall is located on Howell Mill Road, near the I-75 ramp at Northside and W. Paces, in Atlanta, GA. The wall is immediately adjacent to a MARTA bus stop:

2013-06-29 07.20.25

As has become my practice, I act on my curiosity in such situations by 1) snapping a picture or two with my phone, 2) sending the images to an email composer, 3) recording a few questions or ideas, and 4) sending the email to be uploaded to a blog I keep for observation journaling.

What was/am I curious about?

  • Why don’t “they” want people to sit on this wall?
  • Are the bus-stop users sitting on the wall because they are tired, wanting to take a break, etc.?
  • Has the wall failed or fallen because of previous sitters? Did the place of business behind the wall have to spend money to replace a wall in the past?
  • What are the bus-stop users supposed to do… where might they sit?
  • What’s it like to have to use Atlanta’s public transportation, for those that might not have a car, for convenience, like I have?
  • Would I want to sit down – even on that wall – if I rode a MARTA bus every day?
  • What happens when it rains? When it’s bloody hot!? When it’s freezing cold.
  • What other solutions to the problem could be tried? Have any others been tried?
  • What did that wall and those signs cost? What would a wall with integrated seats and head cover cost? Would adding benches be that much to spend?

And I could just go on and on.

It’s only fair for me to divulge that I have been significantly influenced by the 2012-13 First Graders at my school – Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. While I don’t know any of last year’s First Graders, I do practice networking and associating, too, and I followed the blog of the iDesign Lab at MVPS. Last year, before I joined MVPS and MVIFI (Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation), the First Graders took on a design challenge related to the bus stops in Sandy Springs. There are numerous posts demonstrating the D.E.E.P. method of design thinking (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce) – here’s just one showing some of the prototypes after spending quite a bit of time in the discovery and empathizing modes, and after creating Point-Of-View statements and HMW (How Might We…) declarations.

So, if I were as smart as an MVPS First Grader, supported by my teacher and @SciTechyEDU, then I might spend more time at that bus stop, near those signs, and interview some of the people who are regularly there. I might ask for an interview with a MARTA official, one of the people that manages the business behind that wall, etc. Then, I might develop some POVs and HMWs. All of this involves a great deal of in-context, relevant communication, critical thinking, etc. (some of the essential Cs of 21st C or Modern or Timeless learning, depending on which “label camp” you belong to for these essential skills and habits of mind).

Next, I might begin prototyping various solutions based on my insights gathered during my discovery and empathizing. I imagine lots of creativity here as I build and experiment. I could return to the MARTA office, business, bus-stop site and get feedback on my designs. I imagine I would have used quite a bit of mathematics, physics, sociology, etc. during this experimenting and prototyping stage. Perhaps even some history, economics, engineering, foreign language. More communication skills, too. All very STEM, STEAM, and STREAM, if you ask me.

Of course, in “regular school” these subjects would be more siloed than they are in the experience I am describing. Like dinner plates of different colors, they would occupy their distinct places on the table. However, in my field-study example here, the plates have been smashed and the colored shards have been re-organized and glued as a different-kind-of-beautiful mosaic. Same number of total-size pieces (theoretically) as existed when they were whole plates of one color, but now they are mosaically bonded with pieces of various colors. Same amount of total school time might be involved, regardless of whether we scheduled by departments or in an integrated manner, but the time would be more mosaically organized with the integrated approach. My engagement and motivation in this kind of mosaic, difference-making environment might also help me to remain captivated, involved and experiencing Csikszentmihalyi flow for longer than just 45-55 minutes. Of course, different days of the week might be organized differently, depending on what our needs and purposes were as we undertook such challenges as curriculum.

Finally, after presenting my project results and solution to a board of experts, so to speak, I might partner with MARTA or the business or the bus-stop regulars or the surrounding community to realize the solution we developed together. Great opportunities for collaboration, creative expression, leading by influence, entrepreneurialism, etc.

Feeling pretty motivated and invested by now, I might be at a different level of understanding and wisdom about citizenship, civic engagement, and difference-making.

Another Interesting Thought (To Me)

Within a 2-mile radius of this bus-stop-railroad-tie-wall-shouting-signage location, there are about seven schools – some being independent/private and some being public. Meaning that it would not be that challenging to think of a “curriculum,” or “unit,” or “lesson,” or “experience” that could involve student and adult learners engaging in similar design-thinking, project-based, and innovation-training exercises. I am NOT meaning to sound critical of these schools in any way. Some of them, perhaps all of them, are already practicing such mosaic learning and community engagement to develop the Cs and the Seven Survival Skills. My point is that schools have possibilities – infinite possibilities – for such exercises and engagement in their immediate and close-by surrounds. Perhaps the most underutilized learning spaces for schools are our own campuses and immediately surrounding communities.

A Final Note

Rigor (I prefer Vigor – see Amy Purcell Vorenberg’s article in Independent School, “School Matters: Rigor vs. Vigor”, Spring 2008) may not equate to volume of material covered or pace of coverage. Rigor (Vigor) may equate to real-world context that challenges student learners to approach real issues in more integrated, holistic ways and seek solutions to problems that don’t just have one answer or an easily identified one. What’s more, the desire to make a difference and the efficacy to know that one can make a difference are such strong motivators that I have seen countless people – young and old – choose to put themselves into unbelievably rigorous (vigorous) situations because they care and they feel a certain locus of control.

The bus-stop example above is just that – one example. There are countless others. You could/will think of many that would appeal to you more. For me, though, this example lives at an intersection of real-life practices – my training in innovation and design through observation journaling AND the capacities of First Graders (who could have been 5th graders or 11 graders or no graders) to engage in real-life problem solving with their community.

How are you being a student of innovation? How are you engineering practices and creating opportunities for your colleagues and students to develop and grow in the Cs and Seven Survival Skills?

If we are not intentional, it just won’t happen. We need to shift culture.

“The question, as we move from an industrial economy that cherishes compliance to a connected economy that prizes achievement, is this: Are we supporting this shift with a culture that encourages us to dream important dreams? What do we challenge our achievers to do? When do we encourage or demand that they move from standardized tests and Dummies guides to work that actually matters?”

Seth Godin, “The Achieving Society,” The Icarus Deception, p. 22.

 

Dreaming #PBL: Whatever It Is I Think I See Becomes a PBL to Me!

Whatever it is I think I see becomes a PBL to me! [sung to the tune of 1977 Tootsie Roll commercial embedded below]

If you were alive and watching TV in the mid to late 1970s, then perhaps you remember this 30 second advertisement from Tootsie Roll…

Simply replace “tootsie roll” in the jingle with “PBL.” Occasionally, my wife and sons will catch me singing this around the house. Truly, just about everything I see becomes a PBL idea to me. This visioning, though, is the result of purposeful and deliberate practice, as I have tried to grow in my capacity to develop “uppercase PBL” opportunities.

On January 4, 2012, I published a blog post about “Contemplating pbl vs. PBL.” In the post, I constructed a two-by-two matrix that helps explain how I think one can move along a spectrum of “lowercase pbl” (essentially project-oriented learning) to “uppercase PBL” in which learners are addressing genuine community challenges and engaging with authentic audiences of co-interested citizens. But how does one even think of such capital PBL ideas?

Based on countless conversations over the past few years, I get the feeling that more than a few educators struggle with the notion of originating and implementing uppercase PBL ideas. Actually, I think the struggle resides more in the implementation than in the origination, but that may need to be its own separate blog post. For now, let’s stick to the topic of originating, or concepting, the uppercase PBL ideas – creating the grand challenges that tend to integrate studies and promote community engagement from our student-learners and ourselves.

A Habit of Seeing and Recording

Concepting and brainstorming ideas for PBL is as simple as developing a habit of seeing and recording. Some may feel that such is easier said than done, but I believe it is really that easy. To form a habit, of course, one must commit to trying and rehearsing. Anyone with vision can develop a habit of seeing and recording, but it does take practice – just like anything else. In today’s world, though, the tools at our disposal make it easier and easier to develop a habit of seeing and archiving potential PBL ideas. Keeping a digital observation journal is a fabulous practice and discipline, if you want to build a resource pool of possible PBL opportunities.

I imagine there are countless ways to keep an observation journal. In essence, though, an observation journal is simply a space in which to record thoughts, questions, and images about the things that one sees while walking around. Because I almost always have my iPhone in my pocket, I rely heavily on this tool to keep my observation journal. As I walk around school and the greater Atlanta area, I often take pictures of things that raise my curiosity. For example, over the Christmas and winter break, I walked my dog quite a bit, and I captured the following images around a few bridges traversing Nancy Creek – the bridges are very close to my school, and Nancy Creek runs through my school campus.

Just from recording these images with my iPhone, I am wondering about fieldwork investigations of the science, math, economics, and history of Nancy Creek. Myriad questions come to mind…

  • What is the water quality of Nancy Creek? How does it change over a year’s cycle? What kind of life is supported by Nancy Creek? Is it safe for my boys and dog to play in Nancy Creek?
  • What data is collected by that big metal box? How does it collect the data? Where does the data go? Who uses the data and how is it used? How could schools help the organization named on the sticker? Could students participate in this data journalism of Nancy Creek?
  • What was the significance of the Nancy Creek area during the Civil War? What is it’s economic and ecological significance now?

Often, to record these images and questions, I upload my pictures and observations to an email-based blog system called Posterous. Then, with categories and tags added, I am developing a significant library of PBL ideas. In Synergy, we use a group Posterous account (see related post) so that all 26 of us are contributing to the pool of potential project ideas. During the first semester, we accumulated over 400 observation-journal posts. Out of those posts, we developed six projects together.

Imagine if a school faculty and/or the entire student body employed such a school-group Posterous (or any such collaborative tool for seeing and archiving) to collectively organize a virtual fleet of observation journal ideas! The PBL opportunities could be endless!

To develop such a habit of seeing and recording is to follow the initial practices espoused in design thinking:

At Design Thinking for Educators, where the above image was screen captured, this five-stage process of designing is more fully explained. For now, though, just think of observation journaling as a means into “discovery and ideation.” As one takes pictures and records questions for one’s observation journal, one is also engaging in a bit of “interpretation.” By posing questions and potential research curiosities, we begin to interpret what we are seeing, as we begin to formulate what projects could emerge from such wondering. To engage in such design thinking is to return to our roots as childhood learners. As Robert Fulghum has said, “LOOK!” may be the most powerful word we articulate (after mama and dada, of course!). And Mary Ann Reilly, in a recent post about “Making Art & (In)Forming Life,” reminds us of the power and potential of observation. We just have to re-open our eyes to that which we might have started to take for granted. We need to teach ourselves to see again…with that childhood enthusiasm for discovery!

A Key for Innovation

Relearning and leveraging our amazing human capacity for seeing is not just a fun way to generate ideas and enjoy the possibilities of challenge in school curricula and instruction. Seeing – as a multi-step, complex system of discovery, interpretation, and ideation – may be the key to educational innovation. In my eyes, innovation is about dreaming, teaming, seaming, and streaming. To dream is to envision. To dream is to “see” with more of our senses and being. To dream is to contemplate what could be.

May we dream big for our schools and our students. May we dream big for the challenges our world faces. Here’s to seeing…together.

LOOK!

[For more about PBL ideation, see the Buck Institute for Education resources, and the Apple Challenge Based Learning resources. I turn to these resources quite a bit!]

[Cross-posted at Inquire Within on September 3, 2012.]

Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming

Our Synergy team is at the halfway mark, time wise, of the semester.  For the past 9 weeks we have been recording images, questions, and thoughts in our observation journals.  We use a common space, a Posterous group, to communicate, collaborate, and connect ideas.

The challenge now upon us…What data mining strategies should we employ to uncover community issues that, as a team, we want to study, investigate, problem-find and problem-solve?  We have over 300 posts.  It seems daunting, almost overwhelming to sift through our data.

Via his talk at TEDGlobal 2010, “How complexity leads to simplicity,” Eric Berlow was our “guest expert” to help us think about and learn that “complex doesn’t always equal complicated.”

A couple of key insights that stuck with us include:

[Use] the simple power of good visualization tools to help untangle complexity to just encourage you to ask questions you didn’t think of before.

and

The more you step back, embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers and it is often different than the answer that you started with.

Here is a quick trailer and then approximately 4 minutes of video from Monday’s Synergy learning experience to show one of our attempts to find simplicity on the other side of our complex task of data mining for new projects.

  • If you facilitate project-based learning, how do you empower students to determine the team projects?
  • What other methods would you recommend to us for putting students in “that driver’s seat?”
  • How does assessment for learning change when immersed in PBL?
  • How would you assess the various learning demonstrated in the video?

We would love your feedback.

[Cross-posted at Experiments in Learning by Doing]

Synergy 8 Beginnings – Day 1 and Day 2 Recap

As a student for many years, I can remember the general trend of the first day of classes. As a whole, most of my teachers distributed a handout with numerous rules and expectations. We were told what kind of notebook to carry, how to organize it, how much quizzes and tests counted in our averages, what not to do in class, etc.

As a counselor at Camp Sea Gull, we learned that first impressions are powerful. Captain Lloyd used to say that it takes only minutes to form a first impression but days and weeks to change or alter that first impression.

DAY 1

In Synergy, Jill Gough and I wanted to facilitate a careful and thoughtful first impression of what the course would be focused on. Our first class period is only 15 minutes long because of the orientation design of our first days of school. In that quarter hour, we hoped to inspire our 24 teammates – all 8th graders – to know that Synergy was about empowering us to be the change we wish to see in the world. So…we began with Kiran Bir Sethi’s 9 minute TED talk:

In the minutes that remained, we asked the student learners to reflect on why we would begin the course with such a video “act 1.” Several piped up and said, “Because we can do things to make a difference.” “This class is about applying our subjects to making a difference in the world.” “We are just kids, but we can act to change things that we see need changing.”

A successful beginning!

DAY 2

On day 2, we began with the Marshmallow Challenge (see Tom Wujec TED talk). Shortly after the class, we cut this 5 minute video:

The student learners wrote some responses in a mediated journal, and the focus centered on the importance of prototyping and engaging in an iterative process of trial, error, success, improvement, revision, retrial.

Next, we explained that our team would engage in a common practice and habit of observation journaling. To kick off this tool-explanation session, we employed Jonathan Klein’s TED talk:

Students briefly reacted to the power of visual imagery and using images (text, sketch, or picture images) to drum up awareness, reaction, and discussion. This was our jumping off point for beginning the powerful habit of recording our observations in a kind of regular diary about what we see and what causes us to question.

Jill and I then demonstrated a method that we both use to keep our observation journals – a great e-mail based blogging system called Posterous. Jill “postered” an observation journal of me postering” an observation journal: http://jplgough.posterous.com/observations-synergy

Finally, before we had to depart, we provided the students with the private access code to our class Schoology site – our primary means of digital communication and archiving for the Synergy community.

From my seat, it was a great beginning with a team of 26 people full of the “I Can” bug…ready to engage the iterative process of prototyping…so that we can take charge and use our images and voices to make a difference in this world. I still don’t know what kind of binder we should use, but that seems relatively insignificant. And we have weeks to overcome that first impression about notebooks and binders!